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Bag It June 12, 2010

Posted by dakotabiker in Product Reviews.
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5 comments

Seeing some saddle-bag-purchase discussion in the Twitter-verse, I recalled that when I got mine, there was a lot I wanted to know, and not a lot of “helpful” resources.  Saddle bags can be a pretty difficult buy, especially the first time.  They are generally expensive and it is difficult to know whether you have made a mistake until it is too late to return them.   So without any claim of expertise, here’s my limited experience…  

The Setup: 

  • As you may be aware, I have a Dyna Wideglide.  This was my first limiting factor, since the external shocks on the rear suspension force a bag size and shape, and when we get to mounting, this will pose some unique complications.
  • I wanted AMPLE storage.  I bought mine in anticipation of going on LONG rides, but without any real clue how to pack pack for them.  I was a little at odds with myself, however, since I didn’t want to turn my “sleek cruiser” into a “bagger”.  But I figured the line of the Wideglide, with the meaty 160mm rear tire and long 34-degree rake of the fork to the skinny 70mm front tire, would allow me to “enhance” the back end with big honk’n saddle bags in a way that wouldn’t look too horrible.
  • Given the residual fear that I’d end up with more of a Bagger than I’d want, I wanted them to be detachable so I could revert to a Cruiser-look quickly and easily.  Plus, I was not happy with the the idea of having to unpack my gear in the parking lot of a hotel from a solid mount bag only to carry it in by the armful.  The bags had to be detachable, but not too easily detached, lest my bags not remain my bags.  I looked at throw-over bags, but those still need brackets to prevent them from hitting the wheel.  Securing the throwovers both tightly and detachably was not obvious to me and the need to keep the load balanced to keep them from sliding was an unanswered question.
  • I wanted leather, real leather, not leatherette, not plastic… so I knew I’d be paying a bit.  I wanted a box lid rather than flap lid figuring it offered better water protection and would be more secure in holding the top stuff when over-packing.  Plus I think it just looks better, and provides a relatively flat surface giving me a make-shift table for my maps, GPS, and coffee.  Of course, I’d need also need good thick, rigid leather to prevent sagging.  I know they make plactic tubs to help keep the form of the bag, but I figured they would eat up a lot of usable volume.

The Bags:

So, I ended up with a set of big-honkin’, rigid, black leather, studded, box-lidded bags with a front slant that fit my Wideglide.  And when I say fit, I mean they just fit.  The bags are by Carroll Leather.  I couldn’t find the original purchase information, though I could swear I got them from JP Cycles . While they still have a lot of Carroll Leather bags there, I don’t see the ones I bought.  I do see them at motorcycle-luggage.com for $429.95, which is about what I remember paying.  

I have been really very satisfied, and have no regrets about getting the large ones.  In fact, I am surprised at how whimpy or “purse-like” so many other saddle bags look on other bikes.  It may just be me, but I don’t really think the bags make it look too Bagger-ish.  To me, it is more a long-haul Cruiser, but I am clearly biased.  And I must say that it is great to have a place to put my leather jacket, without having to bungie it to rack or the seat, on those spring and fall rides when the temperatures vary so much.   

I actually like the slant-front shape that was dictated by the Dyna suspension; I think it looks much better than a utilitarian “box”, but it does make inefficient use of the volume.  Planning for packing in layers is always a good thing to do; but it becomes doubly important when the back of the bottom of the bag becomes a small acute corner.  They have maintained their shape prettywell over three years; the mounting surface is heavy, rigid PVC plastic (which is not at all apparent from the front) and the remaining sides are rigid leather.   The inside has some grey flocking on the PVC, which does tend to coat things a little bit after a long time, but not horribly.  

 

The bags are not completely waterproof (but I don’t know that any leather bag would be).  Things do get a little damp with sustained riding in heavy rain;  but I don’t have any significant problems in “normal” rain, and use zip-locks or trash-bags for the more critical items.  Despite being through some significant down pours, the bags have held up well.  However, they don’t seem to care for soapy water…  If you are still in the honeymoon period with your bags looking new, take them OFF before washing the bike.  I made the mistake of leaving them on when I went in for service (which is followed up by a complimentary wash).   The tech obviously knew enough to not “wash” the bags, but the  blotchy stains from splattered soapy water from the bike wash are still there after three years as a constant reminder.  I do use Doc Bailey’s Leather Black  once or twice a year, which does a reasonable job of hiding the blotches, as does the normal wear.  And after so many miles of adventure, a little wear on the bags is not a bad thing.   

The Brackets: 

I researched two options: Ghost Brackets and Easy Brackets.  I opted for the latter, so can’t give a good review of the Ghost Brackets (though the Easy Bracket site gives quite a “compartive review” ).  It seems to me now, looking at the Ghost Brackets, that they seem a lot more similar to the Easy Brackets than I remember three years ago.  I bought mine at GreatBikeGear.com  I have been satisfied with the Easy Brackets, though there is room for improvement.  

Rear bushing (longer of the two)

  The system consists of two bolts with bushings that replace a couple of stock bolts holding the rail trim on either side of the bike; the bushings have a slot which recieves the key-holed brackets that are bolted to the bags.  The bolts and bushings appear to be stainless, and maintain a clean look on the bike without a lot of excess hardware when the bags are off.  (Unlike the standoff brackets that would have been needed for throw-over bags.)   

I did have a problem right off the bat in that the Dyna Wideglide had apparently made a small change to the form of the trim in the 2006 model, of which the Easy Bracket folks were unaware.  The brackets still worked just fine, but they just barely rubbed on the chrome trim at the leading edge of the bracket.   I contacted the vendor and they were convinced that they must have sent the wrong hardware.  They immediately sent out another set of bolts and bushings at no charge, but the harware was identical to what I had, so of course the bracket still rubbed.  I was sending detailed annotated pictures of the problem, and my assessment of a solution:  The problem would not have occured had the bushing been just 1/8″ longer, maybe even less.  Eventually they did figure out that Harley had in fact made the design change that they didn’t catch, and they promised to send me new hardware for the new design as soon as they got around to changing them.  Unfortunately, despite the fact that they were very eager to be helpful early on, they kind of dropped the ball on the follow-through.  I was putting a few layers of fiber-tape in there to protect the trim while I waited, but that was looking worse than a scratch and I eventually gave up.  The place where the brackets hit the trim is hidden with the bags on, which is 98% of the time.  For the rest of the time, the scratch is just a small, unnoticeable, “beauty mark”.  

Other than that, the design is pretty good.  The brackets themselves are a very heavy gauge of bent sheet-metal.  Structural robustness was a priority for me; when you have big bags, you fill them up, and that gets heavy.  The brackets themselves bolt to the mounting face of the bag (more on that later) and the top of the bracket has a channel with two key-hole slots which slide onto the slots in the bushings.  The bushing slots are deep enough that the bracket is held securely without too much play, though I do think they could tighten up the bushing slot just a little bit. (I understand why they don’t, but still wish they did.  The bracket is coated with a rough black finish, which blends well with my black and chrome color scheme.  However, the coating is not holding up very well  on the hidden bearing surface that goes into the bushing slot.  I am getting a bit of rust there on the bracket (but not the bushings, so they still look fine when the bag is off).  The bolts that hold the bracket to the bag are coated; but they probably should have used stainless steel as they are rusting too.   

Easy Bracket Mounting Plate on Right Bag

The brackets are secured with barrel-key lock.  The lock design very good in that you cannot take the key out unless the lock is fully engaged, and the lock cannot be fully engaged unless the bracket is fully seated on the bushings.  Of course the bags themselves have no lock (in fact the metal buckles have hidden quick-release buckles in series).  However, I don’t know of any leather bag that comes with locks.  I contemplated riveting in a hasp and plate so I could add a padlock on the bags themselves — but for now I have been relying on the unwritten social contract that says: “You don’t mess with a man’s (or woman’s) ride”.  To date I haven’t had any problems, and oddly feel most “theft-safe” when on the road.  I still get nervous about pilfering on the streets of DC, and do a mental inventory of what I “can afford to lose” every time I park there. 

Installation:

First the easy part: the start of installation was a simple matter of replacing the trim bolts with the Easy-Bracket bolts and bushings.  I worked one at a time so my trim wouldn’t fall off or shift.  Being an engineer at one point in my life, I did use a torquewrench to install the bolts and I used a thread-lock adhesive to secure them.  Those bolts are pretty critical to keeping your valuables attached to the bike as you rumble down the road, so it is definitely not a place to either strip them out or install them too loosely.  

Now the hard part: as indicated before, the brackets bolt onto the mounting face of the bags.  Getting them postitioned correctly is NOT trivial, at least it wasn’t for me… and I managed to screw it up.  

Leatherwork is artisanship, not precision machining (even when machine-cut).  Don’t rely on any edge being straight or at the same angle to anything or at the same distance from anything between the two bags.  Measure for your holes from multiple edges to find the “general location” for the holes, and even then don’t drill on the basis of measurement alone.  Use lots of tape to adhere the bracket to the bag and check the fit, check the fit, check the fit on the bike.  My bags were a little too heavy to prevent the tape from pulling, so I needed extra hands to stabilize while I eye-balled the fit.  Don’t drill all the holes at once; remember the “flat” mounting surface of the bag isn’t, and things will move as you bolt it down.  After you are sure you got it where you want it, drill one hole, insert the bolt with the bracket and loosly tighten the nut on the bolt, stay taped and check the fit, drill the next one using the bracket itself as the guide, insert the bolt (by this time you are really committed to the fit so don’t bother to check it), drill the next, and insert the bolt, then drill the last one.  Wait until all the bolts are in before cinching them down.  I don’t remember if the Easy Brackets came with fender washers; they probably did but a ghost of a memory has me questioning it.  If not, buy them, preferably in stainless steel, and used them on the inside of your bag to distribute the force of the bolt head so it doesn’t break through the PVC or leather.  

Excuse the filth -- rode through thunderstorm this week...

 Clearance is critical (this is where I screwed up).  Fortunately, I had already replaced my stock pipes with a set of Vance-Hines Big Radius, so there was no way for the bags to hit the the exhaust.   The bracket manufacturers claim that the pitch of the brackets will keep your bags clear of the swing arm…. well sort of.  Mine clears the swing arm itself  just fine, but doesn’t clear the rear axle on either side, but particularly the longer threaded end on the left side of the bike.  So if you are not postive the pitch is enough to clear the axle (or pipes, or whatever else) you must account for the amount of play in the rear suspension when hitting those bumpy, pot-hole-laden roads.  And for the record, jumping up and down on your bike is NOT enough of a clearance test (yeah, I tried).  I don’t know what the magic formula is  (it is going to depend on the tension in your shocks and how heavily you load the bike) but I can tell you that 2″ of clearance was not enough for me.  It looked like plenty on first installation, but it didn’t take long to see that the axle nuts were hitting the bottom edge of the bag. I was forced to redrill raising the bag to a 3-5/8″ clearance, which is probably more than necessary, but it works for me and doesn’t look bad.  I was concerned about the top edge of the bag falling down over time without the additional support of the metal brcket, and it has a little bit, but not so much as to be a problem after three years.  Another clearance issue is the shock absorber itself.  When the shock goes into compression, the bottom of it moves both up and back.  I recall that in my first installation, I had signs that my shocks were just hitting the bottom front edges of the rear bag wall.  But in raising the bags, I have 1-3/4 horizontal clearance from the bottom of the bag to the bottom of the shock absorber with no problems.  

The Use:

As I indicated earlier, I let them see the weather.  I put Leather Black on them once or twice a season, and that is about it for maintenance.  Before getting  bags I wondered about the criticality of balancing the load, which turned out to be irrelevant.  I’ll often have the harder-to-access left bag fully loaded, leaving the right almost empty to add stuff I pick up on the trip.  I keep the raingear, bungies, netting, kick-stand pad, and my national park passport, and for long trips a tool kit, in the left side.  On the right I keep the gloves, goggles, atlas, camera, and current year issue of HOG magazine for ABC points, leaving lots of excess room.  With this compliment of “normal” stuff I still have room for my chaps on the left, and my jacket on the right.  Of course the right one tends to get hotter than the left due to its proximity to the pipes, so I do sometimes need to do a little reshuffling when riding home with fresh fruit from a rustic roadside stand at the end of a long ride.  

Before you think they sag too much... Notice the right one is actually parallel to the ground making a decent table when parked.

The saddle bags, as massive as they are, are only part of my trip storage solutions, but that would be another article…